Thursday, November 13, 2008

NOW WHAT WAS THIS STORY ABOUT?

Edward K. Vogel and Trafton Drew, Scientific American - Our brains are crammed with a massive amount of memories that we have formed over a lifetime of experiences. These memories range from the profound (who am I and how did I get here?) to the most trivial (the license plate of the car at a stoplight). Furthermore, our memories also vary considerably in their precision. . .

In the past several decades, cognitive psychologists have determined that there are two primary memory systems in the human mind: a short-term, or "working," memory that temporarily holds information about just a few things that we are currently thinking about; and a long-lasting memory that can hold massive amounts of information gained through a lifetime of thoughts and experiences. . .

A recently published study by Timothy F. Brady, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues suggests that these long-term memories may not be nearly as fuzzy as once thought, however. In their work, the researchers asked subjects to try to remember 3,000 pictures of common objects-including items such as backpacks, remote controls and toasters-that were presented one at a time for just a few seconds each. At the end of this viewing phase, the researchers tested subjects' memory for each object by showing them two objects and asking which one they had seen before. Not surprisingly, subjects were exceptionally good (more than 90 percent correct) even though there were thousands of objects to remember. This high success rate attests to the massive storage ability of long-term memory. What was most surprising, however, was the amazing level of detail that the subjects had for all of these memories. The subjects were just as good at telling the difference between two pictures of the same object even when the objects differed in an extremely subtle manner, such as a pair of toasters with slightly different slices of bread.

Of course, this finding raises the obvious question: if our memories aren't all that fuzzy, then why do we often forget the details of things we want to remember? One explanation is that, although the brain contains detailed representations of lots of different events and objects, we can't always find that information when we want it. As this study reveals, if we're shown an object, we can often be very accurate and precise at being able to say whether we've seen it before. If we're in a toy store and trying to remember what it was that our son wanted for his birthday, however, we need to be able to voluntarily search our memory for the right answer-without being prompted by a visual reminder.

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